Washington -- After 34 years, the woman who gave new meaning to the term "TV dinner" is still going strong: still cooking, still teaching, still telling television audiences what good cuisine is and how to put it on their own tables. Julia Child, doyenne of American cooking teachers, has just launched her latest TV series, "In Julia's Kitchen with Master Chefs."
In the series, filmed in the kitchen of Ms. Child's 1880 house in Cambridge, Mass., more than two dozen chefs talk about their culinary passions and, under the hostess' watchful eye, prepare signature dishes for folks at home to replicate.
"The point is for us, the home cook, to be able to look at the pros and see what they do and how they do it -- and it's also a window on contemporary professional cooking today," said Ms. Child sitting in her top-floor suite in a Washington hotel on a brilliant spring day.
The series, from A La Carte Productions and Maryland Public Television, is accompanied by a book written by Ms. Child with cookbook author Nancy Verde Barr that gives detailed recipes, plus tips and techniques. (The show airs at 5 p.m. Sundays on MPT; check local listings.)
"The book is written for the serious home cook. In other words, it's all do-able," Ms. Child said. Don't look for six-ingredient, 30-minute preparations, however. "I think chef's recipes are something else," she said, laughing.
"We wanted something much more detailed so the book stands on its own -- you don't have to see the television series. The recipes are detailed, in other words, lo-oong. That's my style, anyway, because I want people to be able to do it, and they need all the details. If they're put off by length, they aren't really cooks. In other words, as we say, 'It ain't for fluffies.'
Cooking as a hobby
"It's for people who really love the mechanics of cooking," she said, "and there are lots of people who do cooking as a hobby."
When it came to choosing chefs, Ms. Child said, "We chose them because we wanted a representative group from around the country. We tried to get as many backgrounds as possible."
And there was more to being on the show than being able to cook. "We had to get people who were really at ease, and could project, and who were really masters of their trade as well as communicators -- because half an hour is a long time if you can't understand what anyone's saying."
All the chosen chefs made their way to Ms. Child's kitchen, where the kitchen table had been banished in favor of a cooking island, where pipes were rigged across the ceiling to carry wires and lights, and where a huge, 2-foot wide aluminum tube snaked through a living room window to the kitchen door to provide air-conditioning on the "set."
The basement was set up as a prep area. While one chef was shooting a program upstairs, another would be downstairs getting ready to shoot the next day.
"This is very definitely a teaching show," Ms. Child said. "My role in the show is to be representing the audience -- 'Turn it this way so I can see it better,' 'Was that 350 degrees?' -- asking the questions presumably that you would want to know if you were watching."
The show is possible because America has finally taken its place in gastronomy, Ms. Child said. "I've had as good meals here as anywhere."
That that gastronomic pleasure is not embraced everywhere is one of her laments. She's especially critical of people who expand a caution about a particular food into a ban on it: Apple juice (after the alar scare), popcorn, deli sandwiches and Italian food (after attacks by the Center for Science in the Public Interest). She considers such all-or-nothing attitudes "immature thinking.
"I think it's a shame now that we have all these wonderful chefs, and we have tremendous produce and world-class wines, and a segment of our population is afraid to eat it. It's stupid -- not taking an adult point of view. Why should they be so afraid of food, when they have all the information that's there" -- such as federal dietary guidelines that suggest people eat moderate helpings of a great variety of foods, concentrating on grains and legumes, fruits and vegetables, with other foods in moderation as the best route to a healthy life.
The food phobics, she said, "have left out, 'Have a good time.' "
None of this deters Ms. Child, 82, in her pursuit of American culinary excellence. She's already planning her next series, which will be about baking.
"We're going to do a real French bread, brioche, croissants, puff pastry, health bread -- which is not one of my favorites, it tastes like baked hay, too often -- and we're also going to do the bread machine."
And after that? "I'd like very much to do [a show] with Jacques Pepin," she said. "He's a marvelous technician and he has a wonderful sense of taste, and I'd like to see him do something leisurely, maybe just one dish. But I don't have any definite plans."
She does have one other thing in the works, however. Her last series with Maryland Public Television and A La Carte Productions, "Cooking with Master Chefs," in which Ms. Child traveled to the kitchens of such notable chefs as Washington's Jean-Louis Palladin and California's Michel Richard, is going high-tech: It's coming out on CD-ROM. "We're working with Microsoft," she said. "It should be out in July."
Here are some sample recipes from "In Julia's Kitchen with Master Chefs" (Alfred A. Knopf, $35) that might make or contribute to a pleasant and not-too-labor-intensive summer meal.
The first recipe is from Washington's Roberto Donna. You can toss pesto with cooked pasta with a little olive oil and Parmesan cheese, or stir a dollop into minestrone soup.
Makes 3/4 to 1 cup
2 cups (loosely packed) fine fresh basil leaves
2 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted in a 350-degree oven 3 to 5 minutes until golden
1 or more large garlic cloves, to taste
1/4 cup good fruity olive oil
1 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Either pound the basil, pine nuts, and garlic in your mortar and pestle to make a fragrant, somewhat grainy paste, then gradually whisk in the olive oil, fold in the cheese, and season highly to taste; or, if you are using an electric blender or food processor, puree the garlic by hand into a smooth paste, then scrape it into the machine with the basil and pine nuts; puree rather roughly and pulse in the oil; fold in the cheese and seasonings after you have transferred the sauce to a bowl.
The next recipe is from Mexican chef and cookbook author Zarela Martinez, who tucks it into tamales. It could also go with hamburgers or grilled steaks.
Makes about 2 1/2 cups
2 large fresh ears of corn
2 fresh poblano chilies
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 medium onion, minced
2 medium garlic cloves, peeled and minced
about 3 tablespoons chopped cilantro
salt to taste
With a sharp knife, remove the kernels and juices from the corncobs, preserving the juices -- you should have about 2 cups. Heat a griddle or skillet over moderately high heat until a drop of water sizzles on contact. Arrange the peppers on the hot surface, turning often to cook evenly until the skins are blackened and the flesh is somewhat softened. Remove the peppers and wrap them in a kitchen towel, letting them steam for several minutes to loosen the skin. Then peel, discard the seeds and veins, and coarsely chop them.
Heat the oil in the frying pan, stir in the onion and garlic, and saute for several minutes, stirring frequently, until they are softened but not browned. Blend in the peppers and saute one minute, then stir in the corn and continue sauteing for 4 to 5 minutes, just until tender. Stir in the cilantro, and salt lightly to taste.
The next recipe is from chef Joachim Splitchal, of Patina in Los Angeles.
FOR THE BARLEY:
3 to 8 tablespoons (1 1/2 to 4 ounces) unsalted butter, divided use
1/4 cup finely diced onion
1 cup dry white wine or dry white French vermouth
1 1/2 cups (12 ounces) pearled barley (see note)
1 quart hot chicken broth, plus more as needed
FOR THE FLAVORING:
2 large shallots, peeled and finely chopped, about 1/4 cup
1 medium leek, white and tender green parts, finely diced ( 1/2 cup)
1 medium carrot, finely diced ( 1/2 cup)
1 1/2 ounces freshly grated Parmesan cheese
freshly ground white pepper
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh curly parsley
Melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a 5- to 6-quart heavy-bottomed saucepan over moderately high heat. Stir in the onion and saute, stirring frequently, 4 to 6 minutes, or until it is nicely browned.
Deglaze the pan by pouring in the wine and stirring all around the bottom and sides to loosen and incorporate the flavorful brown bits. Simmer the wine for a minute until it's reduced by half, then stir in the barley and continue stirring slowly for 2 minutes.
Pour in enough chicken stock to just cover the barley, and bring to a simmer. Maintain uncovered and at the simmer for 22 to 25 minutes, stirring every 2 or 3 minutes, until the barley is tender and fully cooked. Add more stock as the liquid evaporates.
Meanwhile, melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a 10-inch frying pan and stir in the finely diced shallots, leeks, and carrots. Saute over moderately high heat for a minute or two, until just cooked through, then stir into the barley and let simmer together for just a minute to blend the flavors.
The recipe may be cooked as much as a day in advance to this point. When cool, cover and refrigerate. Reheat, still covered, over simmering water, stirring frequently.
Remove the pan from the heat and immediately stir in the Parmesan cheese, then, tablespoon by tablespoon, the final butter -- the amount is up to you; Chef Joachim folds it all in. Taste carefully for seasoning, and fold in the parsley.
Note: If you can't find pearled barley in your supermarket, look for it in a health food store.